Book Review: MFA vs NYC edited by Chad Harbach

March 6, 2014

mfa-vs-nycMFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach, is the first book in a new nonfiction series by n+1 and Faber and Faber. In the collection’s title essay, Chad Harbach identifies MFA programs and New York Publishing as the two dominant forces in American fiction. He assigns an aesthetic to each culture: MFA writing is composed of short stories that take after an older, anthologized cannon. MFA writers don’t worry about their book’s profitability because their sole aim is to earn money through teaching. New York writers produce readable, socially relevant novels that aim to sell. Then, Harbach claims that it is the pressure to fit into one of these two aesthetics (implicitly: not the writer’s own creation and vision) that shapes contemporary fiction. He writes, of the book’s two beasts: “Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.”

Luckily, many of the authors in MFA vs NYC achieve a level of subtlety and insight that is missing in the editor’s title essay.

The book’s two main sections are determined by Harbach’s essay: MFA and NYC. In between essays are quotes by people in these fields talking about their experiences publishing books, entering MFA programs, or being picked on in workshop. This is really what the collection should be aspiring to. MFA vs NYC is at its best not when it makes generalizations about its title subjects, but when it focuses on the particulars of one person’s experience with them. The best essays are by people who speak candidly about themselves: “My Parade” by Alexander Chee on his path to the Iowa Writers Workshop; “Basket Weaving 101” by Maria Adelmann on her days in the UVA MFA Program; “A Mini-Manifesto” by George Saunders, which offers a frank, individual perspective on the workshop.

The NYC section of the book offers an often personal look into a world that is otherwise mysterious to many writers (that largely unacknowledged bunch who live and write outside NYC and the university). Agent Melissa Flashman discusses how the cultural and historical moment, and the way it is perceived by universities and publishing houses, influences a book’s popularity. Jim Rutman talks about his path to becoming a literary agent, and discusses the road to publication for a controversial novel (we are pretty positive it’s Tampa). Jynne Martin talks about her work as a publicist with such understanding for the writers she represents that any author would want her on his team.

The most compelling essays are the ones by authors who are just trying to make a living with their writing—or make a living and write—struggling to carve a place out for themselves in a literary world that is now dominated by New York publishing and the MFA system. Among the best of this kind is Emily Gould’s essay, in which she details going into debt after receiving an advance for her half-written first book and discusses a social media obsession that tampered with her writing life.

Sure, the group of authors featured is a little incestuous (Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, and Carla Blumenkranz are all editors at n+1; Chad and Keith used to live together; Keith Gessen and Emily Gould are dating; these are just the connections that can be gleaned within the text itself). The world this book describes and inhabits is insular, for sure—but it makes no claims to be an all-encompassing collection.

“The Teaching Game” section was disappointingly slim, with two essays from n+1 editors and another candid, straightforward—though negative—essay by Diana Wagman on her experience teaching in a low-residency MFA Program. In “Seduce the Whole World,” n+1 editor Carla Blumenkranz discusses the career of Gordon Lish, and makes a pretty ridiculous parallel between the workshop dynamic and the process of seduction. Though this look at Lish’s career is interesting, the manipulative, often sexual relationships he had with his students simply wouldn’t fly in today’s workshop climate. Keith Gessen’s essay on teaching is personal and enjoyable, but the difficulties he describes seem to stem from the fact that (although he tried to be open to all sorts of work) he was teaching from his own aesthetic—rather than trying to help each student succeed on her own terms.

The collection also contains two essays that respond directly to Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a book that offers an academic’s perspective on the rise of MFA programs in America (and a work that, really, hovers over the entire text). “The Invisible Vocation” by Elif Batuman is rife with incorrect generalizations about writing programs, but suffice it to say that the essay contains the sentence: “I should state up front that I am not a fan of program fiction.” In “Dirty Little Secret,” Fredric Jameson offers an at least somewhat more balanced analysis of McGurl’s book.

In his essay “The Pyramid Scheme” Eric Bennett, a writer turned academic, discusses how, historically, writers began to champion intuition rather than ideas as the basis for fiction. Bennett criticizes the still-present bent of American fiction: it doesn’t come from abstract ideas or heady philosophy, it’s grounded in intuition and reality—in living. This is, actually, true. But that is what writing is. That is what separates it from the criticism in this book.

It’s not that contemporary writers are not great thinkers, as Bennett implies. Stories and novels inevitably hold many ideas—just like life does—but they aren’t built from them; they build them. In the end, that is what MFA vs NYC is: a brilliant (and sometimes not-so-brilliant) collection of ideas. But, as anyone who has ever truly written fiction will tell you, fiction comes from the place before ideas—the generative realm of imagination and intuition.

When I wrote a novel for my senior thesis at Princeton, I was required to write a critical introduction, discussing its influences. I wrote a sprawling, dense essay including vast amounts of literary theory and citing the French surrealists. (I remember almost none of it.) My epigraph was a quote from André Breton. Jeffrey Eugenides was a reader for my thesis and he told me very gently that in the future I might consider steering away from criticism, and focusing on the Creative part of my writing.

Given this review’s bent, I guess I should say where I am coming from. I’ve spent a long time studying fiction, first as an undergraduate at Princeton, and then as a graduate student at UNC Wilmington. I know I come from a privileged place, but my experience matches very little of what is described in these essays. I used to live in New York, but when I graduated from my MFA I decided moving back was not worth the hassle. Would I love to publish a book that actually makes money someday? Definitely. But that’s not why I write.

The New Republic review took an opposite tact, favoring Bennett’s essay and any component of the book that includes argument, rather than only anecdote. But it’s not clear that the review grasped the full implications of Harbach’s claim: it’s not just the inescapable influences of these two dominant cultures that arise, it’s the limiting pressure that they exude over the act of writing. The New York writer better write a readable novel, the essay implies, or else she will not be a New York writer at all.

In the introduction, Chad Harbach writes of the negative backlash to his essay:

What was so depressing? In part, it may have been not the essay’s conclusions but its goal: that is, to consider the fiction writer less as an utterly free artistic being, with responsibilities only to posterity and eternal truth (or whatever), and more as a person constrained by circumstance—a person who needs money, and whose milieu influences the way she lives, reads, thinks, and writes.

Of course everyone is, to some extent, a product of her environment. But, is it really such a lofty belief that, despite practical concerns, fiction comes from the writer’s own inclinations, her desire to share an experience (however fictionalized) that is both hers and ours, separate from these two institutions and existing in a huge, wide-open human space?

And, if you don’t believe this, then why write? Certainly, as these essays make clear, not for the money. So, writers: read this book. Enjoy the different perspectives offered on two huge market forces in American letters.

Then put the book down, forget about it, and write.

Title: MFA vs NYC Edited by Chad Harbach

Publisher: n+1 and Faber and Faber

Pub date: Feb 25, 2014

Review by Sadye Teiser


  • Ben

    March 7, 2014 at 10:23 am

    this is a really smart take

    • MastersReview

      March 7, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Thanks very much Ben!

Comments are closed.


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